Sunday, April 30, 2017

144 Buttons on the Wall: Probably Not a Pillow

Last year, I went through an intensive square period, cutting hundreds of little squares from solids or batiks, stitching them together, then (sometimes) adding embellishments. One of the pieces that came out of it is this.

Those are one inch squares. It's a wallhanging, but it could also serve as one of the world's most uncomfortable pillows. Another benefit: It cleared out much-needed space in my overflowing button boxes.

It started, as usual, like a game of solitaire. I made stacks of 1.5" batik scrap squares, then sorted them into color families, around the outside of a piece of posterboard. Then I started dealing squares from the piles to the center of the board.

Moving outward in concentric squares, I ran up and down color and value scales.
When I liked the arrangement, I gingerly carried my posterboard (don't trip!) to the sewing machine, and speed-pieced everything in position. Here's the top all sewn together: 
I added backing, batting, and did a simple pillowcase finish. Next I quilted in concentric squares, not quite in the ditch (next to the ditch?), with thick embroidery thread. 
All quilted. 
And then I sewed on a slew of buttons! Transparent buttons run all the way around the outer border, and colorful buttons are inside.
The middle of the middle: 
Earlier adventures with squares, include 25-36 piece small gifts; 24-scrap postcards, a heavily embellished 10" 100-square backwards wallhanging; and an indescribable 153-square backwards wallhanging. It's hip to be square! (I just wanted an excuse to write that!)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Curvy, Modern, Red, Improv Scrap Quilt

Here's a scrappy, wonky and smallish (34" x 42") modern-ish quilt that I finished last year. 
Yeah, that bottom edge. Ummmm....I'm not sure how that happened. Probably because the project was pure sewing therapy.

It all started with a pile of  Japanesque scraps leftover from a huge project. I cut them into strips, then freehand cut improvisational curves. Next, I sewed the strips together horizontally. Here's the basic idea from a similar project with floral prints: 
(Pretend they're Japanese-ish.) Next I cut out tall vertical rectangles from the horizontal strip sets, and surrounded them with a solid fabric, either yellow, blue, or white.  
I cut the outer edges of the frames into more improvisational curves.
And then made a larger solid blue sashing across the top and down the left hand edge of the blocks. 
If you haven't tried freehand cutting curves, it's easier than it looks, and adapts itself to many different kind of quilts - art, modern, baby, etc. It was pioneered in the early 1980s by Canadian quilter Marilyn Stewart Stoller (who wrote about it on her website, here.) She taught it to many others, including legendary quilter Nancy Crow. From there it spread, Alison Schwabe, Ricky Tims, Debbie Bowles, and the improvisational and modern quilt movements popularized it. Bowles'  book Cutting Curves from Straight Pieces was my launch pad for this quilt. (No financial affiliation, but this is a terrific book, especially for beginners).

A couple of years ago, I wrote up a tutorial about freehand curve cutting and sewing, but here is a simplified version of the highlights. First, line up your strips in the order you want them. They should be at least 2.5" high (imho), and bigger is easier.

Place the first two strips together on your cutting board....

And overlap the top of the lowest strip with the bottom of the upper strip by at least an inch. Cut a gentle wave through both layers. (If you're only cutting through one layer at any point, you're doing it wrong.)

Move them apart. Discard the narrow slivers created by the curves. Bring the main pieces to the sewing machine, offset the tops slightly, and start stitching. Go slowly, and keep adjusting the strips as you go to bring the right raw edges together. 

Your seam allowance will often be less than 1/4", and that's okay. Consistency isn't as important as it is for straight-line stitching. 
Press well to eliminate bumps. 

Once the first unit is created, add more strips the same way. 

Now you have a strip set to play with. So much fun! 
I did some improvisational quilting, with (left to right) feathers, leaf veins, different feathers, and diamond eyeballs. 
Want more detailed directions for improvisational curves?
- Brilliant Australian art quilter Alison Schwabe, who learned the technique from Nancy Crow, blogged excellent instructions here. She has a free 2-page guide on getting started which she will be happy to send to whoever asks for it. "With practice," she wrote me, "one can achieve some quite pronounced freehand curved piecing, not just gentle wavy strips." Examples are in her Colour Memories gallery, here.  Contact her at Alison(dot)schwabe(at)gmail(dot) if you want her guide,  or through her website, here.
- A helpful video from Ricky Tims, is here.
- Nina Marie Sayre's excellent tutorial is here.
-  Debbie Bowles' tutorial is here onYoutube.
- My blog post about an all-denim quilt I made this way, back in 2014, with a detailed tutorial, is  here.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

English Paper Piecing Accidental Chanukah/Christmas Decor

Two weeks ago, I described my romantic hotel room rendezvous with English Paper Piecing. I used a simple pattern to make a bunch of kaleidoscopic stars that progressed veeerrrry sloooowwwwlly.

Back from our trip, I sped things up, and made a bunch more blue-and-white star blocks, including the following....

With all that blue strewn around my sewing room, things were beginning to look a lot like Chanukah. I craved more color. So I dug this colorful and ancient Jennifer Sampou stripe from my stash,
I used my plastic locator template (details in my first EPP post) to find a good location to cut kaleidoscopic petals....
Traced the swirl onto the template with a waxy china maker (easy to erase), then drew close around the template onto the fabric, in pencil.
Cut out the shape from fabric leaving 1/2" seam allowances. (Over time, I've decided that, with EPP, 1/4" is too small, 3/8" is better, and 1/2" is best. Your mileage may vary.
 I glued the corners down and pressed them at the ironing board, which sets the glue immediately so you don't have to hold it down.
Then - don't tell Queen Elizabeth (the British invented EPP in the 1700's) - I zigzagged all the shapes together with invisible thread on my sewing machine.
 With the cardstock still inside....
Then pulled out the cardstock. As you can see, the machine stitching takes a toll on the templates (much more than hand sewing). I won't reuse these.
Backed it with felt, sandwiched rick-rack between the layers around the edges, did some decorative hand stitching with embroidery floss - there it is, a finished thing! 
That was so much fun I decided to do it again with a different ancient stripe from my stash.
 I cut the pattern pieces out of different areas from the stripe, again zig-zagged the pieces together, and here's what appeared:
 Added rickrack, and backed it with felt.
OK, by now I was sick of the same old hexagon-in-the-middle star. I decided to take my red "jewel" shapes, from the same Hoffman fabric, and point them inward. 
 Assemble in sets of three.
 Then joined the halves. I zigzagged over all the seams with a thick red thread.
It definitely needed more, so I nested blue/green hexagons in the concavities. Now it looked like a space station or a virus.
The back, after removing and tossing the machine-stitching-damaged paper templates.....
Diane Gilleland, author of my EPP bible, All Points Patchwork: English Paper Piecing Beyond the Hexagon for Quilts and Small Projectstold me I could straight stitch it onto felt. So I did, except I used two layers of felt for extra heft. I pinned first.
 Then all the way around with a straight stitch....
 And cut away the extra felt.
 The back.
Of course, it also needed some rickrack - doesn't everything?  So I picked a divine shade of green, strung it between the hexagons, tacking it in place with buttons. I couldn't decide on one button color, so I chose six.
OMG! It's an accidental Christmas wreath! (I really had no idea until I started writing this blog post and looking at the photos!)

UPDATE: Insightful quilter Nili Marcia feels that it looks like a turtle with splayed limbs. Thanks, Nili....I think...

And so, happy Easter and Passover to all who celebrate. There are only 7 months until next Chanukah/Christmas! Have fun with these ideas! My original post that takes you through the steps of EPP is here. My second EPP post, about making polyhedra, is here.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Hotel Room Hex-cstasy: Plan an English Paper Piecing Retreat

Look what I just made!

I won't say it was easy. I won't say it was fast. I don't know what I'm going to do with it. But I will say that I had a great time making it in a hotel room!

The quilt world has its fads, and one of the most astonishing now is using English Paper Piecing techniques, aka EPP, to make dazzling hexagon-based kaleidoscopic quilts.

EPP usually means hand-basting fabric over a paper or cardstock shape, then hand-stitching the shapes together. It dates back to 18th century England, and has made a roaring comeback, in large part because of Dutch quilter Willyne Hammerstein. Her books, Millefiore Quilts and Millefiore Quilts 2, cost a minimum of $40 - but worth it:

Gape at many more mindboggling quilts inspired by Hammerstein, here.  Find patterns for the quilts in the Millefiore books here and here.

Credit for the EPP resurgence also goes to Katja Marek, a quilt shop owner in Kamloops, British Columbia, who wrote The New Hexagons: 52 Blocks to English Paper Piece.
The book shows how to make 52 decorative hexagon blocks. Once you have the pattern book, if you go to this page on her website, Katja shows how to join the blocks together into "rosettes" which can then be arranged to become a Hammerstein-esque millefiore quilt. The image below is one example from her website.
I'd read about historic EPP quilts for years, but wasn't tempted. Then, I started noticing these new geometric quilts...I 'liked' Marek's FB page; quilts made by her disciples started appearing in my Facebook newsfeed. I was seized.

Thus, when my husband invited me to travel with him to a conference in Aspen, Colorado in March, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to try EPP. And I'm so glad I did. Though tricky, fussy, and slooooow,  EPP is also deliciously meditative, relaxing, and put me directly into The Zone.

It's a good idea to go to a hotel room, because otherwise, at home, your sewing machine will stare at you with its big sad expensive empty bobbin eyes, pleading with you to speed things up by zigzagging your EPP pieces together with invisible thread! Which, to me, defeats the purpose - EPP is all about taking the slow boat!

So consider marrying or befriending someone who will be travelling to a conference soon, in a field in which you are illiterate (physics in my DH's case), so you won't be tempted to attend their meetings, and will instead experience the glorious bliss of sitting in your hotel room and hand-sewing slow, dangerous angles.


1. A Bible: If you're an EPP beginner, I strongly recommend All Points Patchwork, by Diane Gilleland, my new BFF (I've never communicated with her, but after five days in a hotel room with her book, I feel we are on a first-name basis.) This 200+ page book is packed with priceless advice on the myriad details of EPP.
2. Paper templates You have to choose a formation of shapes. I liked the star on the cover above, but wanted it simpler. Since there wasn't a pattern for that specific configuration in the book, I drew it in in my graphic design program, starting with a 1" per side hexagon in the center. (Diane shows many different ways to draft shapes accurately - you don't have to use a computer!)
The dots mark the centers of each patch, which I added after the retreat, to help with placement.  I crammed two full formations onto a single page, plus two more partial formations to make extra pieces.
Then I printed out three identical pages onto cardstock, and carefully cut the shapes apart.

If you don't want to draw and/or cut accurate pieces, no worries! EPP packs are sold in quilt and fabric stores, and many places online, including the fascinating and educational website. They're cheap! If you just want to download pieces and cut them out yourself, there are lots of downloads online, including these free paper pieces with inspirational quotes!

Diane told me to punch a hole in each template. That makes it easier to remove them at the end of the process, by inserting a crochet hook or other implement.
She says to poke holes in the middle, but over time I preferred to punch them a little off to one side, so that I could put a pin through the center of the template for precision placement of printed motifs.  I sorted my templates into bags.
3. Fabrics that  go together. I packed about 12 pieces of fabric, ranging from strips to 10" pieces, for a 5-day trip. Blues were the focus, with highlights of white, gold, and silver. Many are from my stash of elegant Judaic prints - Passover is coming, maybe I could make something for the holiday. I included geometrics as well as flowy designs. Important: Select a range of values, lights, mediums and darks. 
4. Sewing Supplies: Sharp scissors; threads in colors that match the fabrics; slim needles; slim pins; (mine weren't); a thimble; a paper clip or two.  

Optional: If you will check your baggage, put a larger fabric scissors into your checked suitcase. The small sharp applique scissors above that I used are allowed in airplane cabins, but aren't as good at cutting fabric shapes as larger scissors.

5. Optional: Your laptop, and maybe a subscription to The Quilt Show, or Netflix, Hulu, etc.

6. Optional: An iron. If your hotel doesn't have an ironing setup, you can pack a travel iron - but it's not mandatory. People do EPP on buses, in doctor's waiting rooms, and at meetings, where setting up an ironing board would be considered peculiar. Ironing makes things a bit easier and faster.

What I wish I had brought, but also optional:

7. A non-permanent glue stick
8. Magnifying eyeglasses. EPP involves tinier stitches than I'd anticipated.

Compete with your roomate to establish a beachhead on the desk with the best lighting!
After an overpriced breakfast buffet ($23), kiss your travelling companion a fond farewell, or shake their hand vigorously (depending on your relationship), and wave as he or she heads off to their morning meeting. Have fun, honey! 

Alone at last!  Do a happy dance, because that's all the exercise you're going to get for the next few hours! Sit at your desktop, turn on your laptop (in my case, I binge-watched episodes of The Quilt Show). Your blood pressure is about to plummet. 

I recommend you start with hexagons. They're the easiest shapes to baste. I pinned or paper clipped the fabric to the template, and cut a generous quarter inch all the way around (Over time, I learned: The bigger, the better, within limits. A half inch is good.)
Fold the edges in. Ironing them inward makes it go more smoothly. Sometimes I pinned, sometimes I paperclipped for the first several sides.
As you fold each edge, stitch all the way around with large basting stitches. You'll need to take an extra tacking stitch at each corner. 
Diane's book offers priceless tips about tacking, easy knots that I'd never known about, and advice about when you should or should not penetrate the paper and the front with your basting stitches. For templates as small as mine, I didn't need to penetrate the cardstock. 
Precise placement of printed motifs adds an extra layer of complication.  I didn't arrive at the hotel well prepared for fussy cutting. I'll show you what I wish I'd done lower down. 

Once you've basted a hexagon, you're qualified to move on to shapes with sharp points, especially, for my formation, the half-diamond, half-hexagon shape that Diane calls a "jewel". 
The acute tips are challenging.  One of the options that Diane suggests is to push both seam allowances to one side. She calls the resulting angles "flags". In the picture below, the flag is at the bottom, pointing left.

During my retreat, I didn't pay enough attention to Diane's advice to be consistent with the direction of flagged seams. If, within the same project, you iron some seams clockwise, and some counterclockwise, you're going to have trouble. What am I talking about? Look at the bottom tips in the "jewel" pieces below.
Can you see what's wrong with this picture? In the top row, all the flags point right. In the bottom row, they point left. Three of them are going to have to change in order for the pieces to come together smoothly.

Consistency turned out to be especially important for the outer wide triangles in my formation. In the image below, they're done correctly. The right tip flags are pointing down, the left tip flags are pointing up.  For the non-acute angles - like the top center of the triangle - the direction of the seam allowance is not as important.
Before sewing pieces together, it's important to check whether you like the fabric combinations you chose. Below, I rejected this central hexagon. 
I picked the one below. Then I tested the pieces that surround the star. I decided the scrollwork fabric was too busy. 
Here's what I chose: 
Once you've made all the pieces, it's time to sew them together. First, I attached each jewel at the base to the central hexagon.
I used a whipstitch (Diane explains it and alternatives.) You end up smushing the cardstock in various directions, but it's not difficult. The stitching turned out tinier than I expected, and I wished I'd brought my magnifying headgear.
The next step is to stitch up the seams between each jewel. Last, stitch in the outer "background" triangles. The huge advantage of EPP with shapes like these is that y-seams are a breeze.
Here's the back when everything was sewn together. I didn't remove the outer jewel or triangle papers until much later.
My DH's conference was only in the morning and evening, so in the afternoon, he pried me from my chair, and then we staggered - just a little altitude-sick - around glorious Aspen. As wonderful as aspen-trees-with-eyeballs are...
..and as thrilling/terrifying it was for two acrophobes to take a gondola to the top of the mountain....
(AIEEEEEEE! We didn't ski down. We ate pizza and drank a beer to fortify ourselves for the terrifying gondola return trip).....I nonetheless longed to return to the pleasure chamber that was our EPP infested hotel room.

In 3.5 hours per morning, for four days of the conference, I was able to finish the following 5 stars:
Cosmic star:
 Hebrew star:
Solid star:
Fan star: 
Star star!
Back home, I found it hard to stop. So I completed a bunch more, including the pomegranate (tulip?) star: 
African star: 
Dove star: 
Gold star
Plus two stars made from upcycled mens' shirts

They all came together MUCH faster at home, because (1) I was getting better at it, (2) I used a glue stick, (3) I did more ironing, and (4) I found a reliable system for fussy-cutting the prints. 

Fussy cutting means precise placement of the print that appears on the shape. In my hotel room, I mostly eyeballed it, which takes time and doesn't work perfectly.  Once home, I solved the problem by making myself one plastic template for each different shape. Below, I'm tracing a cardstock jewel template onto gridded plastic. 
Here are the three templates I made.I wrote "F" on them for "front" - to avoid confusion with backwards designs.
Start out by scouting a fabric for a good location.
 Gaze appreciatively at it through the template plastic.
 Using a soft pencil, crayon, or chalk marker, trace the outline of the printed motif on the front of the plastic. Here, I drew over the star.
 Now the template looks like this: (I should have put that F in a lower corner, with a permanent marker.)
 Flip over the fabric, and the template. Find the same location from the back.
Trace around the outer edges of the template onto the fabric, with a soft pencil or a fabric marker . I didn't use a Sharpie or permanent marker because I worry it might leach through to the front.
 There's the outline for your paper template.
Cut about a half inch away from the lines, unlike the photo below. Place your cardstock template within the lines.
Paper clip or pin it in position. 
Now you can start folding the edges in and stitch-basting.

If you're - perish the thought - in a bit of a hurry, consider glue-tacking the corners.  Specifically (when I got home), I aimed  for a little smear of glue on the right side of the folded-over portion.  In the photo below, see that little yellow-and-brown splotch on the upper right? That's the approximate location on each flap where I aim the glue stick.

I try to minimize the amount of glue will wind up on the cardstock. The glue does make it harder to remove later, and may tear the cardstock so it can't be reused.
 If you don't mind tearing your templates, and use a lot of glue, you won't even need basting stitches.
Here's a finished jewel.
Once there's six, I can erase the pencil marks on the plastic template and start over with a new print. 

When I had seven completed stars, I sewed them all together, to make the traditional pattern known as "Seven Sisters." The front is the first photo on top of this blog post. Here it is from the back, before I removed the papers. Cool, no?
Because I was inconsistent about the way I'd pressed the flag tips, some of the intersections were messy, like this one. 
I may yet take this formation apart, fix the seam tips, and reassemble it again. 

Of course, my stars are kindergarten compared to the amazing EPP projects out there. Diane's book takes you from beginners to more advanced projects, including curved shapes, distorted shapes, even 3D shapes. She offers a great deal of advice and diagrams that will help you design your own shapes and formations. And, of course, if you google EPP, you are going to be blown away as I was with  zillions of possibilities! 

NOTE I have no financial affiliation with any of the companies, individuals, designers, publishers, cities, or ski lift operators mentioned in this blog post! 

UPDATE. Just found a tutorial from Diane Gilleland herself about making stars like mine, but colorwashed!

UPDATE: A thoughtful reader directed me to another fantastic EPP site, Original designs by Karen Tripp, tutorials, and kits, including a kit to make a Hammerstein Millefiore quilt.